Buddhist Enlightenment and the Internet


The definition

"And what does it mean to have admirable people as friends? There is the case where a lay person, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders' sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction [in the principle of Karma] in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called having admirable people as friends."


One of the startling achievements of the Internet is the new capacity to network with all kinds of diverse people around the globe. But at what level of contact? The World Series was a culmination of many years of effort, organization and training that we enjoyed vicariously, but that few of us actually practice: rather, it is a spectator sport played for mass entertainment. Since baseball is simple and slow enough that many people can understand it and enjoy watching it, even though they might not play, watching it is a safe distraction to give people some relief from the complexities of their personal lives. It is enjoyable because it is both simple and separate. Computer and video games play similar roles.

The Buddha began with a quest that is shared by us all, namely, why do we suffer and how can we be happy? According to some of the early records, his Enlightenment came when he discovered (1) the attitudes and motives that made him what he was, and also (2) the attitudes and ideas that made others develop as they did. Having discovered how he and others had come to be as they are, his fears and needs fell away, and he found the peace of nirvana. This second achievement is often neglected, namely, that the Buddha discovered what motivated and affected the direction and quality not only of his own life, but also what affected and guided the lives and happiness of others. Only then did he experience a sense of relief and peace as he felt the fears and pressures of his life fall away. In summary, the Buddha was Enlightened when he experienced:

  1. how he came to be who he was;

  2. how others came to be as they are;

  3. the falling away of his compulsions, anxieties, and pain.

It is this claim to understand the plight of others, and the compassion that arose when he was able to understand their plight, that made his life and message relevant to society and was the basis of his public communication:

Monks, there is one individual who arose and came to be for the welfare of the multitutudes, for the happiness of the multitudes, out of sympathy [anukampâ, Chinese min] for the world; for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans. Who is that one individual? The Harmonious One, the Perfectly Enlightened One.

The content of Enlightenment consists of understanding not only how I came to be as I now am, but also how others come to be. This journey of self-discovery and other-discovery is based on interaction between myself and others, as well as on self-reflection. Whereas the information available from the Internet may be life enhancing, the Internet as a tool does not develop the personal processes necessary for Enlightenment. Instead, in many instances it may even distract us from the self-reflection and the interpersonal communication that is necessary for Enlightenment.

The common ground of the Internet is based on electronic connections, whereas the common ground discovered by Enlightenment is based on a heart connection. In Buddhism METTA and KARUNA are two "kinds" of kindness; (1) METTA, which is caring, loving kindness displayed to ALL you meet, and (2) KARUNA, the SPECIAL kindness shown to those who suffer. According to the scriptures, both the Pali texts and the Lotus Sutra, after the Buddha's Enlightenment, he was uncertain about what to do, at which point the Brahma gods came to him and persuaded him to begin teaching others based on his human sympthy for them (T 9.23b7, 23b25, 24b20, 24b28). The Internet involves a shared process, but not the affirmation of the shared human worth and caring developed in Enlightenment.

The Internet allows us to ease our solitude by getting access to things that are compatible with our own interests. However, Buddhism considers that the achievement of Enlightenment involves being able to be compatible and have empathy even with things that may seem foreign or offensive or a threat to us by seeing them as connected with and similar to ourselves. This involves not just new information, or a new perspective on things, but a new understanding of ourselves and our relationship to others at a level that touches what is beyond rational expression and manipulation.

The Internet is trying to develop to the point where we can consider its images to be "virtual reality," whereas the Buddha is trying to do the opposite, namely, to get us free and focused so that we can be in touch with the mystery and wonder of each thing rather than to construct substitutes, either mentally or electronically. The Internet as an electronic medium may give us more information about things, but may make us even more out of touch with their experienced reality than ever before.

All great religions teach the need for solitariness as the basis for our renewal. Whether we call it prayer or meditation or nembutsu does not matter. Basically it involves being alone, at a time and in a place where you can come to terms with things. Being alone, even as a result of pain or sickness, is an opportunity to re-evaluate life and priorities, and to learn how our inner processes of perception, interpretation, and reaction shape our psychological world, our attitudes, and our happiness. Tibetan Buddhism particularly emphasizes those moments when our rational thought is broken (the experience of a gap, called bardo)--such as when we sneeze, or die, or are about to fall asleep, or when we have orgasm--as important opportunities to experience reality free from our rational interpretations. Solitude and sensitivity to how we inwardly experience things is crucial to this process. This seems to be a fundamentally different focus from the solitude that is occupied with attention to information on a computer screen.

Knowing that we can connect to billions of pieces of information is a different task from letting go a false but cherished self-image, or finding ogether. Both encourage a larger global awareness. Both are based on the interconnectedness of life. Both have enriched culture by creating new communities among like-minded people. Both enhance information and are gender neutral. Both are pluralistic, practical, and avoid fighting over dogma.

So said, Buddhists have learned much from the Internet, not only about other Buddhists, but also about what is involved with saving other living beings in the environment and in other countries of the world. Moreover, the new communication media has made clear that meditation is not enough, but that there are many practical things that are required of Buddhists if they are to be helpful.

However, Buddhism also shows that the Internet has its shortcomings. The information highway can enhance social life, or it can be a tool to exploit others. Like the Internet, Buddhism encourages inner calm through its many quiet activities, but adds that our efforts will produce suffering if we focus only on external information to the point of neglecting our inner awareness of how our minds and hearts are interpreting and using the new information. Instead, we also need to give attention to our inner processes of awareness, our inner attitudes, and our way of interpreting each event if we are to escape egotism and conflicts that are based on greed and anger.

Like the Internet, Buddhism encourages learning about others, but adds that we should also discover the transparency of each experience, the connections which constitute our common ground with others, and through this to develop compassion that takes responsibility for others. Unlike the Internet, Buddhism is not just a tool for increasing information and contact, but is also an agent for personal and interpersonal transformation and liberation. For these religious tasks of inner change, freedom, and compassion that are characteristic of Buddhism, electronic communication must be based on personal awareness and human contact. Even in the age of the Internet, the final medium for communicating Buddhist truths will remain the mind, and the ultimate connection will be made not electronically but by the heart.

The following is from a paper about a young man of the modern era reputed to have reached Attainment:

"One could very well say that I am a child of the Cyber-Sangha I have never actually met another Buddhist or spiritual seeker in my real life (at least not that I am aware of), but fortunately I have met many on the internet. Some were Enlightened, some were not, but all of them helped me in one way or another. Looking back, I can see just how tremendously beneficial it was to have friends on the path, to spur me onwards, and to help me look deeper into myself and what I considered to be 'me'. The newsgroups I subscribed to enabled me to engage in conversations about the path and to challenge my own views, uprooting many attachments to my own ideas and beliefs. It was not always beneficial (there were many times I was being misguided), but the friends I have gained from posting to these newsgroups are all people who have contributed much to my progress and whom I am deeply grateful for meeting, as I have gained much from their experience. The internet was also my prime source for reading, as my local library only had very few books on Buddhism. Thus I was fortunate that so many Buddhist teachings existed on the internet." See:




Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.








With some modification by the Wanderling this
article through the graceful services of the author:
David W. Chappell, Ph.D.

Chappell is currently with Soka University of America
from the University of Hawaii at Manoa where he was
a Professor and Graduate Chair in the Department of